Of all my writings reflecting on my life-long experiences coping with anxiety, this one is and will be the darkest. In previous postings I have described how I have coped (with varying degrees of success) with relentless anxiety, in addition to my awkward journey coming to terms with being an introvert personality and a highly sensitive person. This journey was made more awkward because I have found myself in various institutional settings and peer group situations over the years that were unwelcoming and even damaging for someone like me with those predispositions.
Living like this all the time is a battle which takes a heavy emotional toll. Even in spite of the various coping mechanisms I developed, I have periodically fallen into bouts of depression when the continuous struggle through the quagmire of anxiety has eroded my reserves of emotional and physical resilience.
Beyond Blue define depression in the following way:
Major depression is sometimes called major depressive disorder, clinical depression, unipolar depression or simply ‘depression’. It involves low mood and/or loss of interest and pleasure in usual activities, as well as other symptoms. The symptoms are experienced most days and last for at least two weeks. Symptoms of depression interfere with all areas of a person’s life, including work and social relationships. Depression can be described as mild, moderate or severe; melancholic or psychotic (see below).
In the following paragraphs I am going to fill in the human element around this skeletal definition and describe what bouts of depression have felt like for me. Like anxiety, the term depression is often incorrectly associated with its more mundane alternative usage: i.e. “I’m so depressed because… [INSERT GENERIC FIRST-WORLD PROBLEM HERE].” Clinical depression is not an offhand feeling of disappointment that something has not gone your way. It is a grinding existential dread that manifests emotionally and physically to strip you of your heart and soul.
Please remember as always that my experiences are unique to my psychology, circumstances and experiences, and as such should not be read as generalisations that apply to all depression sufferers. Nonetheless, there are likely to be snippets of my story that are familiar to many. I am finding the process of writing about my own anxiety and depression to be extremely cathartic and I hope these writings encourage you to talk about, reflect on and explore your own experiences with these conditions, or those of people close to you.
What the Fuck is Wrong With Me!!!
Being wired all the time is emotionally and physically exhausting. As I explained in Jam Session: Understanding My Anxiety Through Basketball, my baseline psychological state is a heightened level of situational awareness, a couple of rungs below fight-or-flight but well above what would be considered a normal level of arousal. Because of my heightened baseline anxiety level, I have always felt uneasy in social situations because I am simultaneously intensely tuned in to everything going on around me and processing that sensory information within the rich high-resolution inner world of introvert. As a kid I found it challenging to figure out how to interact with the world, always flooded with sensory overload and the overwhelming emotional responses which that sensory input tended to trigger in me. There were times when I would literally seize up, much like during my televised panic attack, and miss out on doing things I really wanted to do and connecting with people I very much wanted to connect with. In these situations my physical anxiety response had maxed out and frozen me up. I used to get so upset wondering what was wrong with me and why I wasn’t able to function in the same way as everybody else.
As an adult I have found that I run out of energy relatively quickly in large-group social situations. Over time I have tended to withdraw more from social activities, particularly since I have stopped drinking alcohol regularly as an anxiety palliative since my late-20s. To socialise I have to strap on the social armour, along with the nagging feeling that I am being inauthentic (and desperately don’t want to be). There are other times when I pull out of social engagements at the last minute because I just don’t have it in me to interact. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy connecting with other people and love catching up with family and friends, but during bouts of depression all life gets sucked away and leaves little energy left to give.
Shame, Shame, Shame
This leads to a soul-sucking, empty loneliness that can spiral out of control. The very connection with other people you so desperately crave is the thing you feel least able to attain. The character Rajesh Koothrappali from the TV sitcom Big Bang Theory provides a humorous case study of what the shame spiral feels like.
With the loneliness of social withdrawal comes shame and guilt, including hyper self-criticisms such as “I am letting other people down,” “people hate me,” “I am missing out life and it’s my fault,” “I am selfish,” “I am a bad person”…and on and on the self-hatred goes.
By this stage of the descent there is little left but numbness, as if the ability to feel any positive emotion at all has been lost. Drifting numbly through the darkness leaves one vulnerable attack from oppressive external forces. There is always a bully ready to unload their life’s frustrations onto you, because the depressive spell has left you weak. You expend your dwindling reserves of emotional energy wishing their demise, but in the process you piss away your remaining emotional defences. You know they are attacking you because there is something wrong in their own life, but you just wish they would fuck off because you don’t have the energy to either retaliate or empathise. The net result is emasculating and dehumanising.
Did You Get the Memo?
Compounding that is the relentless barrage of media messaging of what is normal and desirable, and the depressed person never measures up. My issue is body image. Beginning with being teased about my ears in primary school to obsessing over the unshakable “campus kilos” I loaded on during my initial orgiastic stab at university student life (my “winter coat,” as an old friend used to call it), my struggle with what I look like has been on ongoing burden. Objectively and intellectually I know that there is far more to me than this bag of meat I kick around in. During bouts of depression this intellectual knowledge is cold consolation for feeling like I don’t measure up.
As much as you want to withdraw from society during bouts of depression, one still has to carry on with everyday life. That often means interacting with numerous hierarchical institutions as an employee, client or dependent. These large institutions are inherently dehumanising in their standard operating procedures and the manner in which they reduce people to numbers or disposable units of production. They incentivise some of the worst traits in sociopathic human behaviour as successful ladder-climbing strategies. The classic 1990’s comedy movie Office Space offers a hilarious illustration of the mind-numbing, soul-sapping idiocy of institutional environments, as do Australian TV series like Utopia and The Hollow Men. For a person battling depression, navigating institutional environments is like running a gauntlet from which you emerge feeling like nothing.
All of this leads to a self-reinforcing cycle of ruthless self-critique and self-hatred, self-sabotage, pessimism at life, externalised frustration through lashing out at others, lethargy and fatigue, ill health, escapism and self-medication, and deep gnawing regret. It takes a toll on the people around you and interferes with the practicalities of everyday life. It is like drifting, numb, though a fog of darkness. It is a cage you feel like you can never escape from.
After the Darkness Comes the Dawn
I haven’t found any magic bullet that can slay depression. What has helped me over the years has been counselling and therapy, the encouragement of family and friends, physical activity, anti-depressant medication, and thinking hard about what I want from my life with a determination that I do not want to go on living with depression.
While depression tends not favour an objective analysis of one’s reality, I try to remind myself that I have much to be thankful for: my wonderful wife and son, family and friends, and my professional work at La Trobe University and beyond, which gives me great satisfaction.
I have found that talking about my experiences has diminished the destructive hold of depression on my life or, to return to the metaphor in the title, shone a beacon of light in the depressive darkness. I have learned, at a deep emotional level (as opposed to an intellectual level), that many people experience similar mental health issues to me. It is life-affirming and incredibly gratifying to know that sharing my experiences has helped many other people explore their own struggles with anxiety and depression, and I thank everyone who has corresponded with me over the course of this year.
If we talk about depression openly, we reduce its power. Our next step is to recognise depression as a societal as well as an individual problem that has systemic as well as personal causes. We are all inter-dependent beings and the way be beat this is by doing it together.
Much love to you all.
You can access my other writings and media engagements on my anxiety and depression experiences via my Mental Health and Anxiety page.